Our second session of the term saw us moving into the material culture of text, with two stimulating papers around the theme of ‘Advertising’. We heard about interactions of text and image, and how these paper representations interacted with the objects that they portrayed. We, again, discussed issues of museology, collecting and display.
Dr Philippa Hubbard (Adam Matthew Digital) opened the session with a discussion of ‘Trade Cards in Eighteenth-Century Consumer Culture: Movement, Circulation and Exchange.’ We learnt that calling such objects ‘trade cards’ is, in fact, misleading, as they existed in a range of sizes and styles much wider than we would imagine from our contemporary image of a business card. Likewise, their use was much more varied, as they stood in for a range of interactions between customer and tradesman, from displaying potential wares like a shop window, to acting as an early form of branding, to serving as the space to record and enact credit and billing arrangements. Aspects like blemishes, tears, annotations and signatures on these ephemeral objects can give us a wealth of information about how they were used. Yet, collecting practices associated with trade cards from the late eighteenth century onwards, have obscured some of these functions. Trade cards have come to be prioritised for their engraved images, collected as small art works, and therefore trimmed and mounted divorced from text explanations, annotations and financial context. Are these, again, wounded objects?
Jenny Basford (University of York) also introduced us to issues of survival and collecting of objects with her paper, ‘If the package is right, the pills are right’: Proprietary medicines, branding and advertising, 1650-1850.’ We learnt how embossed glass bottles, and especially paper wrappers, signatures and seals were used to give credibility and authenticity to new medicines in this period. Packaging helped to brand products and therefore both to guard against counterfeiting and, also, in conjunction with wider advertising, to train consumers what marks to look for. The signature of the proprietor, in particular, helped to establish ‘thick’ trust in a product, and also played an important role in the standardisation of both medicines and their packaging as handwritten signatures made way for printed ones and, in time, logos. As Jenny’s work comes out of her collaborative role with the York Archaeological Trust, we heard about the perils and pleasures of working outwards from the ephemeral survivals of bottle shards to establish this story of packaging and branding.
The question session brought out the interesting overlap in the talks over the idea of advertising standing in for a face-to-face interaction between customer and seller, working to establish both the attractiveness and credibility of a product without personal contact. As ever, then, I feel we came back to the idea of ‘assemblages’ as both trade cards and proprietary packaging marshal both the objects and people behind them to act as channels for consumer culture. Have a listen to the podcast and tell us what you think.